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What Is Jazz Harp?

Jazz harp is a mesmerizing blend of traditional harp melodies with the spontaneous, soulful essence of jazz. This fusion creates a unique sound that's both sophisticated and accessible, inviting listeners into a world where classical grace meets improvisational freedom. Have you ever felt the strings of a harp swing with the rhythm of jazz? Dive deeper to discover its captivating allure.
Wanda Marie Thibodeaux
Wanda Marie Thibodeaux

Jazz harp is music played by harpists in the jazz genre. Traditionally, people have considered the harp primarily a classical instrument, although it also is popular as a folk instrument. Some harpists, however, believed the percussive nature of the harp lent itself well to expanding to other genres.

Jazz harp got its first real start with the efforts of harpist Casper Reardon in the 1930s. Known as the "swing harpist," Reardon was originally classically trained, serving with organizations such as the Cincinnati Conservatory and the Philadelphia Orchestra. When some of Reardon's students exposed him to jazz, however, he loved it and thought the harp was capable of playing in the jazz style. He developed his own way of playing jazz on the harp and, through the height of the swing era, forged the way for other jazz harpists, playing with prominent jazz musicians such as Jack Teagarden.

With traditional music cables, electric harps can be plugged into amplifiers and other musical equipment with quarter-inch jacks.
With traditional music cables, electric harps can be plugged into amplifiers and other musical equipment with quarter-inch jacks.

The efforts of Reardon allowed other harpists to challenge the notion that the harp was limited to classical music, particularly Adele Girard. By the 1960s, other harpists such as Dorothy Ashby and Alice Coltrane found ways to expand jazz harp even further, pushing the boundaries of jazz-related genres such as bebop. The recordings of these artists remain some of the best examples of excellence in jazz harp playing.

Jazz harps can be played through guitar amplifiers.
Jazz harps can be played through guitar amplifiers.

One of the major changes jazz harpists brought to harp playing was the amplification of the harp. Modern jazz harpists use one of two types of harps for their playing. The first is acoustic-electric harps. These harps are similar to regular harps, but they can be amplified with electric pickups if desired. The second type of harp used in jazz playing is the fully electric harp. These harps are a major diversion from regular harps in that they have no soundboard and thus must be amplified to produce sounds loud enough for audiences to hear well.

The amplification of the harp was important for jazz harpists for two reasons. First, it allowed jazz harpists to break the volume barriers acoustic instruments face and to compete with the often explosive volume of full jazz ensembles. Secondly, it gave jazz harpists the ability to alter and distort the sounds they made with the harp, similar to the way electric guitars do. With this new palette of sound, jazz harpists found an entirely different way to solo and support other players.

When played acoustically, the harp has a clear, almost bell-like tone often described as ethereal. When played electrically for jazz, however, the sound of the harp is almost comparable to the sound of a steel drum, although the delicacy of the harp sound is strangely still preserved. It often takes listeners some time to adjust to this dramatic, nearly calypso flavor, but people often come to love the new sound once they are familiar with it.

One of the limitations of jazz harp is that there are relatively few harpists compared to players of other instruments such as the violin, as orchestras generally only use one or two harpists at most. Most schools of harp concentrate on classical music and technique, because there is a much greater demand for this style of harp playing. Subsequently, there are even fewer harpists who excel in the jazz genre.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is jazz harp and how does it differ from classical harp?

Jazz harp is a genre of music that incorporates the harp into jazz styles, characterized by improvisation, syncopated rhythms, and bluesy melodies. Unlike classical harp, which follows structured compositions, jazz harpists often experiment with timing, chord progressions, and innovative techniques to create a more spontaneous and fluid sound. Jazz harpists may also amplify their instruments and use effects pedals to blend seamlessly with other jazz instruments.

Who are some notable jazz harpists and their contributions to the genre?

Notable jazz harpists include Dorothy Ashby and Alice Coltrane. Dorothy Ashby was a pioneer, integrating the harp into bebop and hard bop jazz during the 1950s and 1960s. Alice Coltrane, wife of John Coltrane, brought spiritual and Eastern influences to the genre in the late 1960s and 1970s. Their innovative work expanded the harp's role in jazz, influencing subsequent generations of musicians.

Can any harp be used for jazz, or are there specific types suited for the genre?

While any harp can be used for jazz, certain types are more suited to the genre. Lever harps and pedal harps are commonly used, with pedal harps offering a greater range of chromatic notes which is beneficial for jazz's complex harmonies. Electric harps are also popular in jazz for their ability to be amplified and modified with effects, enhancing their presence in a band setting.

What are some techniques that jazz harpists use to create their unique sound?

Jazz harpists employ a variety of techniques to create their unique sound. These include improvisation, glissandos, and rhythmic plucking patterns that mimic the phrasing of horn players. They also use altered tunings and may incorporate percussive elements by tapping on the soundboard. Amplification and effects pedals for electric or electroacoustic harps further expand their sonic palette, allowing for distortion, delay, and other sound modifications.

How can someone learn to play jazz harp, and what resources are available?

Learning to play jazz harp involves studying jazz theory, improvisation, and specific harp techniques. Aspiring jazz harpists can take lessons from experienced teachers, attend workshops, and immerse themselves in listening to jazz recordings. Online resources, such as instructional videos and forums, provide valuable information. Additionally, jazz harp societies and communities offer support and opportunities to connect with other musicians.

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    • With traditional music cables, electric harps can be plugged into amplifiers and other musical equipment with quarter-inch jacks.
      By: Alexey Laputin
      With traditional music cables, electric harps can be plugged into amplifiers and other musical equipment with quarter-inch jacks.
    • Jazz harps can be played through guitar amplifiers.
      By: SeanPavonePhoto
      Jazz harps can be played through guitar amplifiers.